It seems appropriate to be writing about a blog by an Oxfam researcher on this Jubilee weekend as the biblical purpose of Jubilee years was to release the indebted and restore their land to them. Climate change is a symptom of global economic and social injustice. In the debate about solutions carbon pricing is often criticised as a regressive and ineffectual policy favoured by those who want to keep the economic status quo – of course supporters of Climate Income know better! 

James Morrissey, Senior Researcher at  Oxfam US recently wrote a blog titled – The best answer to climate change – or a regressive policy set to fail? A guide to the arguments over carbon pricing.  Morrissey has highlighted the issues about current carbon pricing policies which are also acknowledged by proponents of Climate Income…….


Before we get to the arguments about whether carbon pricing can work, it’s essential to point out that carbon prices are currently inadequate to address climate change. In the vast majority of cases, prices are too low, and not applied to enough of the economy to drive decarbonisation at the rate necessary. The graph below shows how prices are generally below $50 per tonne of CO2 (they need to be closer to $100/tCO2) and only cover 15% of the global economy (they need to be at 100%). Despite these problems, it’s notable that carbon pricing is seeing increasing uptake over time – with more and more countries adopting prices and more of the global economy under a price.


First is the argument that placing a price on carbon does not affect emissions. The empirical literature doesn’t support this claim. Numerous empirical studies of carbon pricing, using a variety of methods, demonstrate that carbon pricing has reduced emissions. There is some question over whether the emissions reductions have been large enough, but this really comes down to what you consider “large” and what sort of reductions might be expected at what prices. In general reductions in emissions have been small, but significant, especially considering the low prices in place.


The second argument against carbon pricing’s effectiveness is that alone, it is inadequate to tackle climate change, because consumers don’t behave like economists assume: as rational cost minimisers. For example, people don’t just buy the cheapest car for their needs; they buy cars based on ideas of status and brand loyalty, among others. This is true and uncontroversial, we need more than price signals to move consumers. However, this argument is also something of a straw doll: most of the literature on carbon pricing acknowledges that carbon pricing will need to be complemented with other policies if it is to be effective in averting climate catastrophe. To this end, advocates of a carbon price who suggest it’s the only policy we need should be viewed with scepticism. 

Note that CCI doesn’t call for Climate Income to be a stand alone policy and it has not been implemented as such in the countries like Canada which have adopted it thus far.


A big concern around carbon pricing is that increasing the cost of energy derived from fossil fuels will drive regressive impacts.

Since energy is central to the functioning of the global economy, and we currently generate around 83% of primary energy from fossil fuels, a carbon price will make almost all goods in the economy more expensive. Because low-income groups tend to spend a greater portion of their income on energy-intensive goods, a carbon price will have a disproportionately large negative impact on their well-being compared to wealthy households – making the policy notably regressive.

However, a huge advantage of carbon pricing is that the price also generates revenues. Importantly, wealthy groups tend to consume more energy-intensive goods than low-income groups (even though they spend a smaller proportion of their income on these goods). What this means is that, despite regressive cost-side impacts, you can use the revenues to make carbon pricing substantially progressive. There are a number of ways to do this, but the simplest is to just return all the revenues to everyone, equally (ie on a per capita basis). Doing so would result in low-income populations receiving more than they pay in increased prices, while the opposite would be true for wealthy populations. (My emphasis).

Morrisey does point out that the policy has to overcome public antipathy to the concept of increasing taxation, which also makes the policy easier for opponents to criticise than less visible regulations and subsidies. He argues, however, that these alternative policies also encounter opposition and are no more capable of solving the problem of climate change on their own than is carbon pricing. He concludes that if there is some momentum for carbon pricing NGOs should support it with the caveats that ….

The revenues produced by carbon pricing must be used to effectively address all regressive impacts created by the price. Prices must either be set high enough to drive ambitious emissions reductions or, if prices are to start low and increase over time to overcome political opposition, the process for increasing prices needs to be automatic and insulated from political push-back. (My emphasis).

Carbon pricing can be effective but, by itself, it will not be enough to address climate change. Any carbon price will require complementary policies. The most important will relate to addressing other market failures (such as the need for public investment in research and development) and addressing network problems (such as supporting electric vehicle charging infrastructure), but will also include policies for numerous markets where price signals are insufficient to shift behaviour.  

Along with the recent reports in Nature and by the Autonomy think tank, this blog and the related Oxfam primer on carbon pricing show growing support for the concept that a Climate Income policy will not only alleviate climate change but also the gross inequalities impeding sustainable development in the Global South. 

Finally I must mention a very apposite blog by fellow Citizens’ Climate Europe member Brigitte Vangerven about the idea that protecting the climate requires sacrifice. …

Pricing pollution will make polluting products more expensive than clean products. The price difference will make people and companies choose the clean alternatives. It will greatly accelerate decarbonisation and the widespread deployment of clean alternatives. The proceeds are used to support the people in the energy transition.

Everybody receives a Climate Income. Most households, especially low and mid incomes are better off or break even through this policy.

It is simple, transparent, just and effective, and I hope that for many people it will dispel their reservations.

This makes it possible to implement an ambitious climate policy, that will receive broad support from the people. There is no longer a conflict.